SPECIAL REPORT: ‘We watch those carrying on but for us time has stopped’

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SPECIAL REPORT: ‘We watch those carrying on but for us time has stopped’

While the men are fighting for Israel’s very existence, their partners are left holding the babies – literally. Lianne Kolirin speaks to the women left behind

Reunited: Esther Shuman and her family.
Reunited: Esther Shuman and her family.

Like tens of thousands of Israeli women, Eliya Roz has spent almost four months bringing up her two children alone. 

She has seen little of husband Gadi, 35, since 7 October when he was called up for military reserve duty. The Israel Defence Forces captain is serving in Gaza so has very limited contact with his wife and children.

The situation “isn’t simple”, said Roz, who is registered disabled and cannot work following a serious road traffic accident.

Since Hamas attacked Israel, she has been left alone to care for the couple’s nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

“We’re in the middle of two wars,” Roz told Jewish News. “One is to fight for Israel and one is to fight to bring the medication our son needs to Israel.”

The disease is a degenerative one and is often life-limiting, she explained. “He needs medication to extend his life.”

Before 7 October, her husband juggled a part-time job in high-tech with studying for an electrical engineering degree – while also campaigning to have the potentially life-saving treatment, which is approved in the US, available in Israel.

“Gadi said he’s fighting for the country and he wants the country to fight for his son,” she said. At home, she is trying to keep the campaign alive, while struggling to get through the day-to-day challenges.

Gadi Roz with his son Meytar who is six and has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

“He’s in Gaza and we hardly hear from him,” she said. “I’m worried about my husband and also my son and I’m hardly sleeping.”

She isn’t alone. Since Hamas’ murderous ambush, tens of thousands of women have been thrown into a fraught new way of life while their loved ones fight for Israel’s very existence.

Some 300,000 reservists were immediately called up by the IDF when the enormity of the disaster began to emerge.

Men, and to a lesser extent women, immediately had to drop their jobs, families and daily responsibilities to respond to the call of duty.

Standing behind them were their wives and partners, some of whom were literally left holding the babies. There is no doubting their commitment and national pride, yet few column inches have been devoted to the partners waging their own invisible battles.

Among them is Neta, home alone with three children aged five and under – the youngest just six weeks old. Her husband Yair was called up hours after Hamas attacked. At the time, Neta – who has asked not to give her full name – was heavily pregnant, already struggling to balance motherhood with hospital appointments and her job.

With no childcare and rockets flying overhead, it fell to Neta to spend her days in her small safe room with her stir-crazy little ones.

Supported by family and friends, she muddled through and at the end of November Yair somehow made it back in time for the birth.

“It was surreal,” said Neta. “I was in the delivery suite at Ichilov [hospital] and across the way were some of the children who had just been released by Hamas. Can you imagine?”

Three days after their daughter was born, Yair was recalled – and this time sent to Gaza. As for all those serving in the war-torn territory, Yair was not allowed his mobile phone, leaving his wife unsure when she might next hear from him.

Friends, family, neighbours and even strangers offer help however they can, but nothing makes up for Yair’s absence.

“I don’t have any patience any more,” she said. “There’s an atmosphere of people getting on with life… going to restaurants, going on holiday. But not us – our lives stopped on 7 October.”

Esther Shuman has four sons aged between 12 and 18 months and works full-time, but she doesn’t like to complain.

“Things are tough but they’re tough for so many people here,” Shuman, originally from Toronto, told Jewish News.

Her husband has been based up north since being called up that fateful day. Things were initially “unbearable”, she said, especially when schools and nurseries were closed.

“The kids would wake up in the night and two of them would ask, ‘Is daddy still alive?’ It made my heart break and I was so worried about him,” she said.

Her husband’s visits home have been short and infrequent. Describing the experience as a “rollercoaster”, she said: “We have almost got into a groove of living without him and then everyone has to get used to him being around again.

“We go from being so emotionally connected to really living separate lives. Hopefully that will repair itself when things go back to normal.”

Juggling everything is exhausting,  but the worst part is the dread of the knock at the door – particularly with growing numbers of military casualties. “That stress is always there,” said Shuman. “It’s always in the back of your mind that something really terrible could happen.”

Ayala, who chose not to give her full name, said she and her husband “recently celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary by forgetting about it” since he has also been in reserves since 7 October.

“He has 60 soldiers under him in an elite unit and is pretty busy,” said the 31-year-old mother-of-four.

“Since he’s a company commander, he has his phone and I’m always relieved when I see him online on WhatsApp, even if he doesn’t have time to talk or even send me an emoji that they’re all okay.

“When we do have time to speak, he can barely share anything about what he and his soldiers are doing, and I try not to share too many stories from home so he doesn’t miss us too much. I really just want to let him focus on his mission.”

She admits things are “very very difficult”, but that her neighbours have been an  incredible support.

However she added: “I’m really feeling a hole in my heart when I think about family and friends who live far away, who have stopped asking how I am doing.”

This may explain why she and many like her have been turning to support groups for others in similar positions. “It’s about letting us feel seen and remembered,” she said. “It’s about letting us know that we’re not alone, and that we are lionesses.”

Family counsellor Shaily Perlman has been running such support groups for the partners of reservists and career soldiers since the conflict began.

“They get a lot of stuff off their chests,” said Perlman, who describes herself as on a “mission” to support these women who often feel overlooked. “A lot of them cry so much,” she said, explaining that the group gives them the chance to speak “with no filters”. “They find out that they’re not alone,” she said. “They find strength and they find tools together day by day.”

There is great concern about their children, many of whom are “regressing” or struggling with emotional difficulties, she said.

“I try to take them back to the 7th of October from the point of view of the kids,” she said. “There’s a phone call and all of a sudden their father is going crazy, giving them a kiss and running off.

“They don’t understand the idea of their father disappearing and every time he comes home and disappears again it’s a reminder.”

It is understandable that concerns about their children are weighing heavily on the women, but first they must look after themselves, said Perlman.

“It’s like the safety advice on planes – you have to put your own mask on before your child, so you can breathe safely.”

As the reservists begin to return home, families will need to adapt, she added. “They need to get used to each other” she said. “They went through three months of different life struggles and unfortunately you can not hit restart and get your life back.”

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